“Why can’t I just feed my dog chicken?”
It’s one of the most common questions we get in The Raw Feeding Community’s Facebook group. And it’s understandable: after all, chicken is easily accessible and the cheapest kind of meat available to most people. Wouldn’t it be so much easier and more affordable if you could just feed chicken and not worry about anything else?
Unfortunately, an all chicken diet is not balanced. And an unbalanced diet could cause severe nutritional deficiencies and health concerns.
Yes, even if you followed the “80/10/10” rule, feeding the right amounts of muscle meat, bone, and organ, a chicken-only diet will be far from adequate for your dog.
But what is chicken lacking that other things like beef, lamb, or fish make up for? What exactly would a chicken-only diet be deficient in if fed exclusively long term to your dog? I did a nutritional analysis of a diet consisting of 80% chicken muscle meat, 10% bone, and 10% chicken liver, and discovered that this diet would be problematic in the following areas:
Improper omega fatty acid ratio
Essential fatty acids are not manufactured in the body, so they must be obtained in the diet. Chicken is very high in linoleic acid, which is an essential omega 6 fatty acid, and very low in alpha-linoleic acid, an essential omega 3 fatty acid. Generally, the recommended ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 for a dog is 5:1 [source], but some studies have found benefits to a ratio closer to 2.5:1 [source].
Chicken’s ratio is around 20:1 or higher!
Excessive omega 6 fatty acids are associated with inflammation, and without the proper amount of omega 3 fatty acids (which have been shown to reduce inflammation) to balance them out, your dog may suffer an increased risk of heart disease, arthritis, or even cancer.
Even the addition of fish or an omega-3 fish oil supplement would not be enough in a chicken-only diet, because the amount of fish oil that the dog would have to consume to balance out this ratio would be extremely high – and of course, too much fish oil would also come with its fair share of adverse effects, such as interfering with platelets which causes clotting issues, or depleting the body’s source of vitamin E which causes muscle weakness and paralysis.
Vitamin D deficiency
Unlike humans, dogs cannot get adequate amounts of vitamin D from the sun, and must consume most of it in their diet. Vitamin D plays an important role in regulating the amount of calcium in the blood, protects against muscle weakness, and promotes a healthy heart. Vitamin D deficiency may be related to congestive heart failure [source].
Raw fed dogs get a lot of their vitamin D from liver, but chicken liver doesn’t provide as much as the amount found in other sources of liver such as beef or lamb, so an all chicken diet still falls short.
Eggs are a good source of vitamin D too, but you would have to feed multiple eggs a day to make up for the amount of vitamin D that chicken lacks. Feeding too many eggs could result in diarrhea, high cholesterol, and biotin deficiency. In my analysis, I found that I would have to feed my Doberman 5 large eggs a day in order to have enough vitamin D in a chicken-only diet!
Vitamin E deficiency
Although not as severely deficient as some other vitamins and minerals, an all-chicken diet still falls short of vitamin E as well. Since vitamin E is an antioxidant that protects cells against oxidative stress, a deficiency could lead to a decrease in immune and cardiovascular health, neurological function, fertility, and muscle strength.
Chicken fat is a source of vitamin E, but obviously feeding too much fat would result in a number of issues. Based on my analysis, a chicken-only diet did not meet the minimum requirement for vitamin E unless I added so much chicken fat that it resulted in a 40% fat content in the diet! Needless to say, that would do far more harm than good.
Vitamin B deficiency
While many of the B vitamins were a little low, technically all but one met minimum requirements in my analysis: B1. (Vitamin B2 was close behind, just barely making the cut.) Vitamin B1, or thiamine, is typically supplied by red meat like beef or pork in a raw diet, but a chicken-only diet is deficient.
A thiamine deficiency is particularly frightening due to how quickly it can become fatal before anyone even realizes the dog has a nutritional deficiency. Symptoms are vague – such as poor appetite and vomiting – so diagnosing it is not straightforward. This means that most cases of thiamine deficiency aren’t diagnosed until the condition is quite advanced… and by this stage, a dog can die within a few days if the deficiency is not corrected immediately [source].
Copper is necessary for many functions in the body, including the formation of connective tissues, iron absorption, and red blood cell development. A copper deficiency typically results in anemia or abnormal bone development.
Beef liver is a good source of copper, but chicken liver falls short of the amounts of copper in beef. Kidneys are also a good source of copper, but the size of a chicken kidney is not nearly enough to provide a significant source of kidney; it may or may not even be included if you purchase a whole chicken, and they are not sold separately in stores (which is why the only chicken organ used in this analysis was liver).
Zinc is an essential mineral involved in a vast array of metabolic processes in the body. It is important in the function of the immune and endocrine systems, brain function, eyesight, skeletal development, and even DNA replication [source]. It is one of the most powerful antioxidants in the body.
Zinc deficiency is most commonly associated with symptoms such as hair loss, dry or brittle nails, and thickened, crusty paw pads. Reproductive health is also seriously affected by zinc deficiency.
Although chicken does contain a decent amount of zinc, it still falls short of the minimum requirement for dogs. More is found in beef, turkey, lamb, or shellfish.
Manganese is a micromineral that is essential for reproduction as well as for the proper utilization of some vitamins and minerals by the body. Although very rare, the symptoms of manganese deficiency include poor growth, reproductive failure, and skeletal abnormalities.
Liver and eggs also contain manganese in small amounts. However, the most effective source of manganese in raw diets are in supplemental ingredients such as alfalfa powder.
Iodine is a trace mineral that supports your dog’s metabolism and helps with the production of thyroid hormones. Without enough iodine in the diet, your dog could be at risk of developing hypothyroidism (especially if their breed is predisposed). Symptoms of hypothyroidism include weight gain, lethargy, and hair loss.
In a balanced raw diet, iodine is typically sourced from fish, but supplemental sources including sea vegetation (such as kelp powder or seaweed meal) or sea salt are also effective sources of iodine.
Just feeding the correct percentages of meat, bone, and organ is not enough! This is why RFC stresses the importance of a variety of protein sources – a minimum of 3, but preferably more. Red meat, fish (or fish oil), and at least one other secreting organ (such as kidney or spleen) are important to provide a balanced “prey model” raw diet. Chicken alone is not adequate.
If for whatever reason you cannot feed enough variety, it is still possible to feed a raw diet, but you may need to put in a little more research and/or work with a knowledgeable canine nutritionist that will be able to tell you exactly which supplements and additives you will need to include in order to make sure the diet is balanced.
Don’t just assume the diet you’re feeding is fine because of anecdotal advice you read on the internet. In many cases, dogs don’t show symptoms of nutrient deficiencies until years of eating an unbalanced diet – and by the time an owner notices something is wrong, that deficiency could have already caused some serious damage to their dog’s health.
Nutritional deficiencies and the health problems they cause are not worth the risk! We feed a raw diet because we want to provide the healthiest diet possible for our dogs. But if you’re feeding an unbalanced diet, you’re doing more harm than good.